A group of young aspiring tour guides in the Kimberley’s remote north hopes a potentially million-dollar-a-year economic windfall will mean they can return to live and work on their traditional lands and escape the social issues familiar to the region.
- Visitor pass revenue will be used to train the next generation of tour guides
- Emerging leaders hope tourism development will eventually allow them to live on their ancestral lands
- Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation looks to strike a balance between tourism and mining
Wunambal Gaambera country covers about 2.5 million hectares and is known for its spectacular undeveloped coastline, pristine waterholes and waterfalls, and rainforests that feel like walking back into another millennia.
Dotted through the landscape is an abundance of striking rock art telling stories unique to the region’s ancient culture.
A new generation of traditional owners wants to capitalise on these drawcards in a way that addresses widespread social disadvantage, by building a self-sustaining industry for generations to come.
But the continuing impact of the coronavirus pandemic and the prospect of large mining operations mean big challenges lay ahead as leaders decide what their future will look like.
Visitor pass could generate $1m a year
The main economic driver for Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation is a visitor pass fee, that ranges from $45 to $90, depending on whether tourists arrive via land, sea or air.
The visitor pass, introduced in 2017, generated about a million dollars in revenue in 2019 when an estimated 16,450 people visited, which is thought to be a record.
But then 2020 was virtually a write-off due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year, the closure of state and international borders and the loss of large international cruise ships means visitor pass revenue is expected to be hundreds of thousands of dollars down on 2019.
‘Keeping the culture strong’
Despite the setback, part of the money is being used to create jobs and improve tourism infrastructure in a region where the only road in is dirt.
Over the coming months, the visitor pass revenue will provide TAFE training for a group of aspiring young tour guides.
Part of the training is taking place at Munurru campsite, renowned for its rock art.
Campsite manager and tour guide Terence Marnga tells tourists stories behind the ancient depictions while teaching visitors about the importance of surrounding plants and animals.
His proteges learn from his style combining deep cultural knowledge with good humour.
“It feels really awesome getting out there and teaching the young ones, sharing our stories,” Mr Marnga said.
He also handed hosting duties over to trainee and Gaambera woman Ebonny Hassett, 19, who described the importance of a long-neck turtle depicted in one piece of rock art.
“It was my first time doing one of the tours and speaking up in front of a crowd,” she said.
“The tourists are amazed by the stories we tell … seeing the expressions on their faces and also keeping the culture strong.”
Gaambera man Ildephonse Cheinmora, 24, bounced about with a selfie stick, at ease with meeting new people who are interested in his culture.
He tells the tourists stories involving the animals and spiritual beings etched into the rock face.
“Seeing the expression on tourists’ faces when you tell them the story — what they’re looking at and what they don’t know.”
Grappling with potential impact of mining
But while Mr Cheinmora and Ms Hassett see their future in tourism, Wunambal Gaambera’s directors are grappling with how to handle the interest from mining companies in the area’s rich bauxite deposits, a primary source of aluminium metal.
Valperlon Group hopes to have a mine approved for construction in the first half of next year that would see almost 2,000 hectares of pristine vegetation cleared.
Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation chair Catherine Goonack was not available to be interviewed when the ABC visited the native title area.
The ABC was directed towards a previous statement in which she expressed support for a draft environmental scoping document, which traditional owners helped prepare.
A WA Environmental Protection Authority spokesperson told the ABC that Valperlon was now drafting an environmental review document.
Once accepted by the EPA it would be released for an eight-week public comment period, which Valperlon says is due to begin in September.
Balancing the project’s impact on the environment remains a significant challenge, given Wunambal Gaambera acknowledges bauxite mining as a key threat in its healthy country plan.
Young leaders hope to return to their ancestral home
The bauxite mine would be situated 15km west of Kalumburu, a large Aboriginal community, just outside the native title area.
Most Wunambal Gaambera people live in Kalumburu where unemployment is almost 50 per cent and social problems are rife.
Mr Cheinmora and Ms Hassett live in Kalumburu, but they hope money earned from the visitor pass will one day mean they can move away from the town and live instead on the land their ancestors called home.
“I would love to go back on our homeland … back near the Osborn Islands and build a camp for our family,” Ms Hassett said.
Presently the only permanent community on Wunambal Gaambera land is Kandiwal, a tiny settlement situated down a notoriously corrugated dirt road.
But traditional owners like Jeremy Kowan have big dreams for the area given his daughter wants to follow in his footsteps as a ranger.
As he gestures to the landscape he paints a picture of a modern future.
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